At a moment when the world can seem dangerously out of balance, it is still possible for a musician to convey a groundedness and a joy that don’t seem smiley-faced and goody-goody. A fine place to find it is Birdland, where the jazz singer Catherine Russell began a short run with her sextet on Tuesday evening, projecting a strength, good humor and intelligence that engulfed the room in a mood of bonhomie. She reminded you that even in the most chaotic times, there are oases of calm.
The daughter of Louis Armstrong’s longtime musical director Luis Russell and the singer Carline Ray, Ms. Russell is steeped in early jazz — from Dixieland to ’40s and ’50s R&B. Ms. Russell is not a nostalgist examining the past for curiosity’s sake. The vintage songs she chose were treated as standards whose sentiments apply as much today as ever.
She made the warmblooded Lil Green song “Romance in the Dark,” a favorite of Bobby Short that was popularized by Dinah Washington, into an affirmation of good sex wound around the sly boast, “Now we will find … what the rest have left behind.” Another Washington favorite, “Let Me Be the First to Know,” is a lover’s common-sense plea to a partner to let her know when the magic is dying. “But in this game of romance,” she acknowledges, “forever, forever is a million-to-one chance.” How grown-up is that?
Ms. Russell brought the same cleareyed directness to the Billie Holiday classic “You’re My Thrill,” divesting the song of the aura of helpless, besotted dependency associated with Holiday to make it an optimistic declaration of happiness. Another Holiday signature song, “Them There Eyes,” taken at a breakneck speed, was pure bliss.
The arrangements led by her musical director, the guitarist Matt Munisteri, left plenty of room for meaty solos by the pianist Mark Shane, Jon-Erik Keliso on trumpet and Evan Arntzen on reeds. Tal Roten played bass, and Mark McLean, drums.
There is no happier music than early jazz performed with spirit, understanding and a sense of fun. Ms. Russell and her crew brought them all.
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